Martin Jay, in an excellent paper ‘Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, and the search for a new ontology of sight’ (itself part of a superb set of essays Modernity and the hegemony of vision, edited by David Levin), takes Sartre to task for being unable to escape the shadow of Cartesianism.
For all his talk of situating consciousness in bodily experience, Sartre had … missed the intersubjective (or intercorporeal) dimension that always subtends the seemingly self-contained subject. A Cartesian in spite of himself, Sartre failed to acknowledge the dialectical interplay of bodily intentionalities prior to the duel of wounding gazes.
In this passage, Jay is arguing that Sartre found himself unable to escape the subject-object orientation of the philosophy of consciousness – one of the reasons why he never erred from a “harsh description of the objectifying power of the gaze”. This description is evident in the play No Exit (which provides the subtitle to this website); it is also evident in his study of the writer Jean Genet, specifically the episode that supposedly played a crucial role in the formation of his personal identity – when as a 10 year old he was caught in the act of theft:
… caught in the act. Someone has entered and is watching him. Beneath this gaze the child comes to himself. He who was not yet anyone suddenly becomes Jene Genet…. A voice declares publicly: ‘You’re a thief’.
This verbal judgement in the mind of Sartre was preceded by a visual judgement:
pinned by a look, a butterfly fixed to a cork, he is naked, everyone can see him and spit on him. The gaze of the adults is a constituent power which has transformed him into a constituted nature.
For all his desire to escape the parameters of Cartesianism, Sartre still worked within a paradigm that placed an active subject and a passive object as counterpoints. As a result, any notion of community tended to be reduced (as Jay rightly points out) to the gaze of a third person (as in third person narrative) – a perceptual notion that, even if it conjures up ideas of ‘the third man’, is but a by-product of a privileged subject looking in from the outside, a position as practically unlikely as it is theoretically dubious.
The next post deals with Merleau-Ponty’s (relatively speaking) more successful efforts to rid perception of Cartesianism…
- Sartre, Jean-Paul. Existentialism and human emotions. New York: Citadel, 1957.
- The Existential Cogito
- Huis Clos by Jean-Paul Sartre: It’s you, it’s you, hell is a place on earth with you